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Dispirited but not defeated

I don’t know about you, fellow freelancers, but the past eight weeks have felt like “The Twilight Zone” when it comes to getting paid.

Only you know that the problem won’t end after a 30-minute episode.

At first, I chalked it up to The August Doldrums: you know, editors and publishers going on that elusive thing called “vacation” while you continue to sit, fingers to keyboard, filing assignments and checking accounts to see if those outstanding invoices have been paid.

Once the calendar flipped its page to September, I was ready to follow up. With nearly $9,000 of unpaid invoices, most of which represented work filed months ago, I set aside time in my hectic reporting and writing schedule marked “INVOICE F/U.”

That “F/U” is for “follow-up,” in case you were wondering. I know- the temptation to read a double entendre into that is real.

I always feel resentful about spending time chasing down money I’m owed. It’s time for which I’m not getting paid, spent on work for which I’m owed, taking time away from new work that could be getting done, asking for something I shouldn’t have to ask for because I’ve followed all the rules and have honored my end of contractual agreements. But I suck it up, send out inquiries, pull up and reattach invoices “for your quick reference and convenience,” and look at what kind of crazy mathematics I have to pull off to cover my own obligations while I wait to get paid.

But this September has, thus far, been particularly bad. A publisher who owed $3,200, separated into two invoices, paid one invoice but not the other. When I followed up, they were surprised. There was another invoice? Well, yes. Yes, there was. Another publisher lost my invoices: could I send them again? And a third promised, repeatedly, that “payment was being processed this week,” only this week turned into three weeks, and no, I still haven’t been paid.

The kicker came today, when, after filing an assignment for a reputable outlet for which I’ve written a couple times (and have two more commissions in the pipeline), I wrote accounts payable to check on the status of an invoice filed at the beginning of August. I double-checked our contract: net 30. They were past it. Where was my money? I wrote, politely, to inquire.

What ensued has been an exchange of emails that has left me dispirited and disgusted, but not at all defeated. Many freelancers don’t follow up on payments; others apologize for doing so (“Sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check on my invoice, dated months and months ago!”). After the series of exchanges below, I am, more than ever, determined to be both diligent and dogged in pursuit of compensation for my work.

I hope you will feel the same. I also hope you will share this widely. Don’t let others devalue your work. Don’t continue to contribute to a system that doesn’t compensate you for your product; I can think of no other profession that permits this. Feel free to lift any of the language of my own emails and edit them to fit your own situation as you seek the payment you are owed.
Email One: From Me to the Accounts Payable Department of the Publisher


My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing to check on the status of an invoice that was filed on or around August 5. The project was [description of project], which was assigned by [name of editor]. The total due was [$xxx.00]. I have not yet received payment for this project; could you please advise regarding the status and when payment can be expected?


Email Two: From Someone in Accounts Payable Who Did Not Indicate His Position/Title

“Hi Julie: We are currently have a backlog with our freelance payments, we will get payment out as soon as we can. Please be patient and we’ll get you paid. Thank you!”

Upon receiving this, I stepped away from the computer to think. Would I write a “Ok, thanks!” email or would I let him know that no, this wasn’t okay? I thought about it for about 20 minutes and then responded:

Email Three: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for the update. Do you have an estimate of when the invoice will be paid?”

Email Four: From Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Not at this time. Sorry.”

Email Five: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Dear [name redacted]-

This is an utterly unacceptable response, and one that I find disrespectful and unprofessional. I am not writing for a hobby; this is my profession. Like [name of publisher], I have bills to pay and not a single one of the people or companies waiting for payments from me would accept this type of response.

According to the contract with [name of publisher], it is clearly articulated that your obligation is to pay within 30 days of receiving the invoice. Please see the contract here, if there is any doubt as to that fact.

[I inserted a link to the contract, signed by both parties.]

If I do not receive payment by the close of business on Monday, September 21, I will pursue legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Six: From Untitled Guy #2 in Accounts Payable

“Hi Julie,

My apology for the delay in payment. Please understand that the AP team was in no way trying to be rude or disrespectful and we do appreciate the service you provide to our Company. I’d like to talk to you live if you are available this afternoon so we can discuss your invoice and payment. Please let me know if you are available after 2pm PST and if [my phone number, redacted] is still a valid number to reach you at.

[name of guy #2 from Accounts Payable, who also doesn’t indicate his title]”

Email Seven: From Me to Untitled Guy #2

“Dear [name redacted]-

Thank you for your prompt reply. I’d rather receive explanation and next steps/payment schedule via email so that we have mutual documentation.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me


[Name redacted] forwarded your email to me. I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss, but we will not discuss via email. Sorry if that is an inconvenience for you, but I’ve found email insufficient to discuss payment matters. Please let me know a good day/time/number to call you.

[Name redacted]”

Email Nine: From Me to CFO

“Dear [Name redacted]-

I’m not sure why you find email ‘insufficient’ for discussing payment matters; as far as I’m concerned, I only want to know when you intend to process payment and whether this problem with paying freelancers will continue, as I have another invoice I’ll be submitting for a work filed yesterday and I have two more assignments pending. If you are insistent that you must call, please be aware that I will record the conversation, which is legal under New York State law.

You are welcome to call me at [number redacted] anytime after 8 AM tomorrow. After tomorrow, I will be out of the country on assignment and without phone and Internet for 10 days, so I ask that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Thank you.”

Email Ten: From CFO to Me


I’m sorry, we will not consent to being recorded. If you’d like to discuss payment without recording, please let me know; otherwise, we’ll tender payment when able.

[Name redacted]”

Email Eleven: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I’m not asking for your consent. New York law clearly indicates I’m within my rights to record a call, with or without your consent.

It’s clear to me that you and your colleagues don’t intend to act honorably; you’ve made a clear-cut situation far more complicated than necessary, and your contract is absolutely clear about the terms of payment. If I do not near from you by tomorrow, whether by email or phone, with a specific plan of action and timeline for payment, I will initiate legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me


I understand your frustration on payment (I would be frustrated if I were in your position). I would like to discuss it with you. Payment issues happen in business from time to time. When they occur, they are not necessarily (and absolutely not in this case) a function of dishonorable behavior or deceit. We had a significant partner file bankruptcy, which has created this issue. We are working through it. You will be paid in full. If you would like to discuss the timing of this, I am very happy to call you to do so. But, I am in California, which does not allow recording conversations without consent. I do not consent to being recorded. If you want to discuss your payment without recording, I am standing by to do so. If you do not want to do that, you will still be paid in full.”

Email Thirteen: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I certainly understand that ‘payment issues happen in business from time to time.’ I’ve been a business owner and, of course, as a freelancer, I’m frequently in the unfair position of being put at the mercy of a publisher’s ‘payment issues’… though I doubt you or others on staff absorb the similar–and very real– tangible, literal costs of such issues. Nor does your landlord, electric company, or Internet service provider, I’m sure, wait until issues resolve for you to pay them. Yet [name of publisher redacted], like too many publishers, expects freelancers to bear the brunt of the effects of problems they didn’t create. And, unfortunately, too many freelancers don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid they’ll never get paid, or that they’ll ‘burn bridges,’ a ridiculous notion, considering that they’re not the one who caused the problem.

It’s not unreasonable to want to be paid according to the contract we both signed. In addition, what continues to confound is: (1) why you would feel it is at all ethical to allow editors to continue commissioning freelance content in the midst of such problems (which clearly don’t have a resolution), and (2) why you wouldn’t inform freelancers who are due money what the generalities of the problem are, detail how it affects them, and present them with a reasonable resolution, one that has a timeframe attached to it. That’s fair and professional business.

I am not willing to have an off-the-record phone conversation. You can expect to hear from my lawyer.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

and his final reply, which will not be met with a response from me, other than the one I’ve clearly indicated is my recourse:

“Understood. Please put him or her in touch with me. Happy to discuss with them.

[Name redacted]”


Contributoria: Review of a Journalism Funding Platform

I’ve had a long-running joke among my journo-writer friends: All we need is to go back to the days of patronage.

Many of us agree: we love writing but we are exhausted by some of our profession’s hamster wheel tendencies. We’re aching to write more “important” pieces–the kinds of stuff we really want to write–but we can’t find an outlet for those pieces, or we can find an outlet, but it’s a passion project and it pays little or nothing. How can we fund the kind of work we really want to do?

Enter Contributoria.

I’d heard about Contributoria from a friend and colleague early in the year, and I’d even signed up for my own free account when the site was still in beta. I wasn’t drawn into the site, though; its purpose, function, and process weren’t really clear after a quick perusal, so I put exploring the platform on the bottom of my to-do list.

It wasn’t until Contributoria announced that its beta phase was ending that I decided to return and explore the site. Little had improved in terms of clarity, but I had enough time between projects to be able to spend some time trying to understand what, exactly, the site purported to be.

The founders of Contributoria describe the site as “an independent journalism community [and]… platform [that] enables journalists and writers to collaborate on all aspects of the writing process, including commissioning, editing and publication.” Each month, staff puts out a call for proposals and journalists submit ideas for which they then seek backing. Backing comes in the form of points that are allocated to a project by other Contributoria members; each member who has a free account^ is given 50 points per month to support the projects of her or his choice. Think crowdfunding but without dollars.

The dollars (or pounds; the site is based in the UK) come in once a writer’s project receives sufficient backing. Each writer determines the dollar amount he/she wants to earn for the assignment. No editor or staff member approves that amount; if you can get enough supporters to back your project and if you deliver the assignment on time, you get paid out at the rate you set.

Where does the money come from? The site has had several funding sources since its launch in January 2014, among them, the International Press Institute News Innovation Contest; currently, it is funded by Guardian Media Group. And their relationship with The Guardian is important in other ways, too. Once you publish your article on the Contributoria platform, editors consider it for inclusion in a monthly insert that is distributed in the physical newspaper.

Ok, but is it really legit?

The short answer: Yes.

My first project, a long-form piece about The New York Botanical Garden’s emphasis on programming about women, was published on the site, was picked up for inclusion in The Guardian, and was fully paid out at the rate I set, which was about $1,000 US. It took longer than I expected to get paid, but I expected this; two friends had mentioned that their first projects on the site took a while to be paid but that subsequent projects were paid quickly. This has also been my experience.

After the success of the first project, I proposed a second one, this time about a 19th-century father-son glassmaking duo whose astonishing body of work is well-represented by Harvard, which has a 4,000+ piece strong collection of the pair’s glass flowers and marine sea creatures. I set the price for that story at around $3,000 US, as it required travel, interviewing, and research that would involve significant costs for me. That article was published, paid quickly, and was then added to a collection on as part of Contributoria’s new partnership with that platform.

For my third project, I decided to set an audacious goal. I’ve been wanting to report a project about c-section rates (especially among immigrant women) in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest rates of this procedure in the world. I drew up a budget and set my fee at $6,000 US. I’d need over 200 backers for this project. It was not funded, though it drew a lot of interest from supporters who had not backed the previous two projects. I attribute this not to the topic or even the high fee, but to the fact that I took a rare hiatus from the computer for four days around Thanksgiving. You don’t want to schedule a digital detox when you’re trying to get this kind of project funded.

My current project is also set around $6,000, as it involves reporting in Detroit and Mexico. You can read more about it here. And, of course, I’d be thrilled and grateful if you would back it.

So what are the pros and cons?
The most obvious pro is that I’m getting funded for articles I haven’t been able to get supported in any other way. I’ve been able to determine my own worth and to do actual research that involves in-person reporting. Seeing the Blaschkas’ glasswork and spending a day at Harvard to interview museum staff members were entirely different than looking at the collection online and in books and watching videos with staff members.

Another pro is the level of support provided by the staff. I’ve experienced several technical problems with the site and I needed to postpone a deadline because of a subject’s unexpected change in schedule, and one of the site’s founders, who seems to handle much of the day-to-day administration of Contributoria, always responded quickly and effectively.

Then there’s the issue of rights. You get to keep them. Period. If you want to and can sell the article elsewhere, you can and you should and Contributoria won’t give you grief about it.

Cons? There’s the hustle of getting friends, loved ones, and strangers to back the projects, of course, but pitching these stories and funding them independently would be its own hustle. I also have concerns about whether the model is sustainable over the long haul; how many times can I lean on my network to ask for its support, even if it doesn’t involve people contributing their own money to my cause?

There are a few other areas of the site and process that could bear improvement. The user interface isn’t as intuitive as it could be, particularly when it comes to “publishing” both proposals and projects. The lack of clarity about the steps of those processes can lead to delays for the writer. Other recommendations I have for improvements:

-It would be extremely helpful if the site had a search function, particularly for members who want to support projects. There’s no way to search for projects by keyword (“art,” say, or “tech”).

-The ability to add more photos or even to propose multimedia projects would be very welcome and seems like an eventual inevitability for the evolution of the site.

-Make it possible for supporters to indicate whether they want to be visible as “backers.” Right now, writers have no way of knowing who has supported their project.

-The quality of the proposals and resulting articles is quite uneven, which may be a cause for concern for professional writers and journalists who don’t necessarily want their work published alongside that of amateurs or hobbyists. The citizen journalism ethos is admirable and poses lots of positive possibilities–among them, leveling the playing field for those of us who are neither “emerging” writers nor canonical ones–but a greater degree of initial vetting may draw more readers, more interest, and more funding to the site.

-Part of the model (and one which I haven’t addressed here at all yet)–the crowd-editing function–seems superfluous to me. Technically, members and backers are able to help edit your work and make suggestions. No one has done so for any of my projects (though one of the founders, Sarah Hartley, has made final edits on both of my pieces– mainly edits that changed my Americanized spelling to British conventions), and I’m kind of glad about it. As another friend who has used the platform says, what writer really wants the peanut gallery to add its two cents? But perhaps there are writers who want this kind of input and influence.

The platform hasn’t reached full maturity yet and I have concerns about whether the site will be around for the long-haul (especially as my own dependence upon it as a source of income increases). I also have concerns about whether it will become harder to get a project backed once more people, especially colleagues, begin to learn about Contributoria and use the platform. I’ve already seen, for example, that my own monthly allocation of 50 points has gone from being devoted to one writer to being spread out over several writers, making it tougher for each writer to reach his or her target quickly.

All this being said, though, Contributoria’s founders and staff are clearly committed to ongoing improvements and the platform has been an invaluable way for me to fund the work I really want to be doing and couldn’t do otherwise.

^There are two other levels of membership, both of which are fee-based, and each of those members receives additional points per month.